Clippers gonna Clip: LA Clippers choke under pressure

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Prayitno Hadinata/Creative Commons

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On July 6, 2019, the Los Angeles Clippers signed Kawhi Leonard and traded Danilo Gallinari, Shai Gilgeous-Alexander and five first-round picks to acquire Paul George from the Oklahoma City Thunder. From that day forward, the Clippers were heralded as a future dynasty and all-time great team, following in the footsteps of Michael Jordan’s Chicago Bulls of old. Keep in mind, this was before Leonard and George had played a single second for the Clippers.

Looking back, these comparisons were actually quite accurate when you realize that people didn’t mean any of the six championship Bulls teams, but instead the 1995 version that flamed out in the second round to Shaquille O’Neal and the Orlando Magic. At least back then, the Bulls were only the fifth seed and Orlando was the first seed — the Magic were supposed to win. The Clippers entered the season and the playoffs as favorites to win it all, as a vast majority of the NBA media lusted over the talent up and down the roster. From the star duo of Leonard and George to the team’s two elite bench players and Sixth Man of the Year winners Montrezl Harrell and Lou Williams, how could this team ever lose?

I’ll tell you how.

In the most embarrassing fashion in NBA history, the Clippers were favored at -1,400 to win the series and lost not one, not two, but three straight closeout games, each with a large lead in the third quarter. The team blew a 16-point lead in Game 5, a 19-point lead in Game 6 and a 12-point lead in Game 7. No team has ever choked this hard with this amount of hype.

Leonard was being compared to Jordan because of his midrange game, elite defensive play and reputation for being clutch. Where does Leonard’s reputation for being clutch come from? One lucky shot in Game 7 of the second round last season. Otherwise, Leonard has ranged from mediocre to terrible in Game 7 situations. In his five career Game 7s, he averages about 20 points on about 40% shooting from the field. Take out his one outlier 40-point elimination game last season, and those stats drop to about 15 points on 39% shooting.

In fact, his Game 7 performance against the Denver Nuggets was one of the worst Game 7 performances from a superstar in NBA history. Leonard had the second-worst game score of any player to take at least 22 shots in a Game 7 ever. In the last 60 years, no player has taken at least 22 shots and scored under 17 points in a Game 7. That is, until Leonard, who scored 14 points as he was unable to get to the free-throw line a single time. Leonard made only six of his 22 field goal attempts. If a shot isn’t falling, a player should try to get to the free-throw line to get easy looks. Leonard attempted zero free throws. In a Game 7, only Paul Arizin has made fewer shots than that in the past 60 years. To call Leonard’s closeout performance pathetic would be an understatement.

For a player who is routinely overrated and compared to all-time greats such as Jordan, Kobe Bryant and LeBron James, his stats and play do not always live up to it. Leonard’s career reputation is based on winning a Finals MVP in 2014, when he had back-to-back 9-point games and wasn’t yet the Spurs’ leading option, and then winning a second Finals MVP last season over a heavily injured Warriors squad.

However, Leonard was not the only one who choked this series away. His expensive partner, George, deserves a share of the blame. He scored only 10 points on 25% from the field, including an abysmal corner three that hit the side of the backboard in the fourth quarter. Only John Starks has shot a worse percentage in a Game 7 while taking at least 16 shots and eleven 3-pointers. At this point in his career, George having a terrible clutch performance shouldn’t surprise anyone. George has 12 games shooting under 30% on at least 13 attempts, topping that mark among all in the 3-point era. This was his 20th playoff game shooting under 30%.

Clippers head coach Doc Rivers has now blown three 3-1 leads in the playoffs and has lost eight Game 7s, both of which are the most in NBA history. For Clippers fans, the saddest part is that this marks the 50th consecutive season during which the Clippers have failed to reach the conference finals. Despite how the Clippers’ 2020 season ended, it is still the best team in franchise history, considering it got the closest to a conference finals, compared to other Clippers teams.

So the next time a supposed NBA “expert” wants to ask “who is going to score on the Los Angeles Clippers,” the answer is everyone.

Tom Aizenberg is a columnist. Contact him at [email protected].